The Wonder of Small Landscapes

(photo by Richard Moran)

 Wild places exist just beneath our feet.

[by Kaylene Johnson-Sullivan]


For all the plans and preparations I’ve made over the years to visit large landscapes such as the Brooks Range and Denali, the small wilderness outside my door holds its own special magic. Here, closer to home, we know which days in spring the bluebells will bloom and how the path grows red after the first frost sweetens the cranberries.

I thank Ray Bane for helping me realize this. In writing Our Perfect Wild, I interviewed Ray and his wife, Barbara, who lived and worked as school teachers in Barrow and Wainwright in the 1960s. They traveled by dog team, on foot and by air across thousands of miles of Alaska’s biggest wilderness areas. Ray eventually went to work for the National Park Service where he explored and mapped vast tracts of the central Brooks Range. But in all his journeys across immense landscapes, he concedes it was often the “little wilderness” places that captured their hearts. In the deep of winter, they once came across warm springs in the Kugruk Valley where an artesian waterfall spilled into a deep pool of open water. Here in the middle of a frozen landscape, where winter temperatures regularly dipped to minus 60 degrees, was an oasis of flowing water and green, moss-covered rocks. A small gray songbird, an American dipper, had even chosen to stay the winter.

(photo by Michael Jones)

Ray says with all the territory there was to explore, it often didn’t occur to him to linger long enough to appreciate these smaller landscapes. One of his traveling companions once told Ray that he had “the bends.” He was always rushing from one bend in the stream to the next, wanting to see what lay around the corner. “I wanted to see it all while ‘it’ and I still existed,” Ray explained.

An Inupiat elder, Ekak, once admonished Ray to remain focused on the present and on the subtle stories that played out in their immediate surroundings. Ray says it took years to learn to slow down and savor the place where he stood. His story reminds me of two active fox dens that I’ve been watching, both of which are within walking distance of my house at the foothills of the Chugach Range not far from the bustle of Anchorage. One spring day I watched a little kit with big ears and a wet nose climb out of the den to have a look at her world. Suddenly any distinction between wilderness and my own skin became permeable, irrelevant. Yet there is always the sense that we are visitors here, that the wild came first and that it will reclaim itself at the first opportunity. I think of the windstorm that tore trees from their roots and knocked power out for five days a few years back, and of a grizzly sow and her juvenile cubs roaming the neighborhood, causing alarm but no trouble as they made their appearances for a couple of seasons. And of how just before the state fair this past summer, a moose and her calf ate my neighbor’s enormous cabbages. He says this has been going on for years – his gamble for one more day’s growth against when that moose decides on its annual feast of coleslaw. He laughs ruefully when he admits he usually loses that bet.

In winter, after the soggy ground freezes, I can cross-country ski in the moonlight through a nearby marsh where wilderness stories unfold at my feet. Tracks in the snow reveal the travels of the resident fox and the movement of snowshoe hares and voles near the warmwater spring where they come to drink. Year after year the quiet drama of life and death unfolds one season after the next, just outside my door.

I’m grateful to Ray for pointing out what he learned over many years: defining “small wilderness” can mean going no further than the garden. Wild raspberries proliferate, jumping their beds beyond the fence and into the neighbor’s yard. Birds nest nearby. Moose forage. As my cabbage-poor neighbor will attest, wilderness pays scant attention to the boundaries of fences or raised beds or cultivated plots of dirt.

Landscapes don’t have to be immense to be places of wonder. Small sanctuaries can provide all the mysteries that the great treasures of the North have to offer. Sometimes it’s just a matter of slowing down enough to watch, to listen, to notice